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Always the quiet ones: the 2018 Serpentine Pavilion by Frida Escobedo

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Mexican influences permeate this year’s pavilion, which is more low-key yet more sensual than in recent years, finds Rob Wilson

With its long, low orthogonal grey profile, this year’s Serpentine pavilion, designed by the 38-year-old Mexican architect Frida Escobedo, is in many ways the quietest one in years for this annual commission, which has been running since 2000.

Recent iterations have been notable for their exuberance of colour or profile – the blue and golden ’treeform’ of Francis Kéré’s pavilion last year, BIG’s dramatic pixelated stacking in 2016 or the chromatic worm-like forms of SelgasCano the year before.

Escobedo is the youngest architect to design the pavilion and hers is also only the second solo female-led practice invited for the commission since Zaha Hadid designed the first one back in 2000.

serpentine 2018 fea 2675

serpentine 2018 fea 2675

Talking to her, she admits the roster of previous architects and their designs was one she was very aware of – with one of the main issues she faced being how to approach the commission afresh and propose a distinctly new solution: ’So many big names have been associated with the pavilion, and the first big challenge was to come up with an idea that hadn’t been done before.’

The pavilion describes a large rectangle in form – creating a courtyard space internally. In this and in its subdued dark colouring, it is superficially reminiscent of Peter Zumthor’s 2011 iteration. But where that took the cue of an enclosed monastery cloister and garden as its model, Escobedo’s form breaks up dynamically when you enter – with a diagonal series of inner walls cutting through the space – a diagonal which is also picked up in the line of a shallow, triangular-shaped reflecting pool and the soffit of a curved, darkly reflective ceiling – formed of polished stainless steel sheets – which covers half the space. 

Escobedo’s use of the courtyard form and of water were inspired by Mexican architecture, but its layout is more site-specific. While the outer walls are orientated in line with the main Serpentine Gallery building, the strong diagonal, picked up in the edge of the pool and the line of the ceiling, is parallel to the line of the Greenwich Meridian.

’One of the challenges was to design a pavilion that was very site specific to the gallery and to the park and the place of London. The fact that the pavilion was only going to be here for a short time, and yet then going on to be a permanent structure at an unknown location, meant that questions of time and space became very important to approaching the design. There were big contradictions. How do you anchor a building to a place when it is only temporary?’, she says.

serpentine 2018 fea 2478

serpentine 2018 fea 2478

The main structure supporting the roof is an on-site welded steel frame, engineered by AECOM, with the walls formed of steel Vierendeel frames. These walls read like woven semi-transparent screens from afar – almost like rattan in texture – but are in fact infilled by standard stacked concrete tiles. Locally sourced, the tiles’ lattice arrangement is inspired by the celosia walls seen commonly in Mexican architecture: permeable stacked concrete breeze-block walls which let in light and breeze to internal spaces.

‘We wanted to use an industrial material that is commonly used in England, while allowing the landscape to filter in, with the darker colour of the screen walls making the surrounding colour of the park all the brighter,’ Escobedo says.

Certainly, the surrounding green of Kensington Gardens comes through vividly into the inner space and the thin sheet of water gives a further sensual nature to the space – and picks up reflections of the sky, which are further scrambled by the reflective ceiling. 

Overall this pavilion creates a centre of gravity and a strong graphic, contemplative sense of place – although one fears that these qualities and the more abstract references to time and space implied by the architecture, might be too delicately poised for the volume of visitors expected to pass through it, not least to paddle – and selfie – noisily in its shallow pool.

The Serpentine Pavilion will open to the public on Friday and stay open until October 7.

2018 pavilion planning permission final page 35

2018 pavilion planning permission final page 35

Project data 

Start on site 19 April 2018
Completion 10 June 2018
Gross internal floor area 233.3m² (including pool) 541m² (including external area)
Construction cost Undisclosed
Client Serpentine Galleries
Architect Frida Escobedo
Technical consultant David Glover
Technical advisor AECOM
Town planning consultant DP9 
Construction Stage One Creative Services

edit repro frida escobedo contraste

edit repro frida escobedo contraste

Source: Frida Escobedo, Taller de Arquitectura

Conceptual drawing

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